Hot Shot: Patricia Suero, Director of Social Catering, Kimpton EPIC Hotel, Miami
In a bit of a shift from our usual F&Be interview with the women who create food and drink magic— this week we met Patricia Suero, who helps design the show.
Patricia’s unique career path saw her enlisting in the Army, while still in her teens, as a means to further her education and sense of adventure. As director of social catering for Kimpton EPIC Hotel in Miami, Patricia helps bring her clients’ dreams to reality.
Despite seeming like wildly disparate careers, Patricia’s empathy, organization, and unflappability have provided the armor on her road to success.
Hi Patricia! Let’s start at the beginning—where are you from and what was your first job?
I was born in California, to Dominican parents. I lived in Puerto Rico from age 5 to age 17, and then went back at age 24. My first job was as a cashier at a beach shack (serving icees, etc) at Escambrón Beach in San Juan at age 14. My father's friend owned the shack and I used to help on the weekends.
You are the director of social catering at Kimpton EPIC Hotel in Miami. This must be a big event destination for both local and out-of-town occasions. For our readers, who may be considering different careers in the food and beverage sector, what is social catering?
Social catering is the planning and management of events celebrating milestones in people's lives such as birthdays, weddings, and all other sorts of special occasions.
What is your role with regard to those events?
I oversee the booking, management, planning, and execution of the previously mentioned type of events. I also serve as a liaison between our social customers and our property team.
What steps have you taken in your career that brought you to where you are right now?
It is difficult to determine which experience brought me closest to where I am right now. I think the most significant one would have to be when I opened my own event design company. This was a result of working for, and learning from, so many amazing people and mentors along the way.
Your career has been on an upward trajectory ever since! Now that you are organizing events for a large cosmopolitan hotel, how has your management style changed with regard to your team at Kimpton EPIC?
Our team has shifted away from focusing on direct management of others and has moved more toward ensuring that everyone feels supported. We approach from a true team effort lens, where everyone pitches in to ensure everything gets done in a timely manner.
With so many events canceled, delayed, or down-sized due to the pandemic, how have you had to adapt—both personally and professionally? (What has helped keep you busy—and sane?)
I never stopped being busy as I had to continue booking new events, handle the postponing of existing ones, and manage the ones we were able to host within the evolving city guidelines, etc…
I think being understanding of the current environment—and being kind to myself—has been very important in keeping my head above water during this time.
It sounds like you have taken a fascinating career path—including the army and humanitarian missions. What motivated you to enlist in the army at 17?
I always like to learn new things and at that moment in time, I felt it was an opportunity to embark on a good adventure.
You had to beg your parents to enlist. Were they ultimately supportive of your choice?
Initially, they were upset, as I’m an only child, but the recruiter told them that I had an option to leave the army eventually. They finally caved when they heard there would be a contribution to my education via the GI Bill. They signed on the dotted line allowing me to enlist at age 17, around six or seven months before my 18th birthday.
Volcanos have played a role in your journey— can you tell us more?
One of my most memorable deployments while in the military was a humanitarian mission sponsored by the joint armed forces where we were sent to Usulután in El Salvador to help a community that had been affected by a volcano eruption. I was part of a team that was tasked with sourcing available water in the area, purifying it, and supplying it to our home base– all of which was done in support of helping this community rebuild after the catastrophe.
In a humanitarian emergency, you are working with stressed people in an extraordinary circumstance: a life-altering disaster. For a large social event, you are working with stressed people in an extra ordinary circumstance: a landmark celebration. Was this a hard shift to make, professionally or emotionally?
In both scenarios, it is important to remain calm and make decisions based on facts, and remain focused on obtaining the best possible outcome. In dealing with extreme emotions, whether it’s distress or excitement, the common denominator is that both are things we live through as part of our shared human experience. I feel like there has been no real shift because both require management with empathy. I just wear heels now.
While they sound like rather dissimilar careers—army vs event planning—they actually require a lot of the same organizational, management, and psychological skills. Are these skills and traits you have a natural aptitude for—or did you develop them over the course of your training and career?
Both skill sets are very similar. They both require a great deal of emotional fortitude that I don't think I had before doing either. I will say that event management, at times, can feel more stressful. I have always been a person that lives for “the little things” and I’m known to fixate on details. The army helped me become more objective and results-driven; at the same time, the army also allowed me to revel in doing things with precision. When organizing events, I have learned that “the right way" of doing things exists in more than one form and that flexibility always yields the best results. You have to be quick on your feet to manage events. My skills in this area have been polished by both experiences. But going back and forth—between flexibility and precision—is something that those in the event industry can definitely school any GI on.
The army is a very male-dominated environment. What are some of the coping mechanisms/tools that empowered you in this environment?
I felt empowered precisely in what made me different: a different gender. This gave me the opportunity to approach things from a new angle to solve challenges, etc…
How do you apply these to succeed in the world of hospitality?
Differences in experience peppered throughout make a team best prepared to serve any guest that comes through the door.
What are you hoping to help change in the hospitality industry for women over the next year, 5 years, 10 years?
Amplified work-life balance and more opportunities for self-development.
What do you think is the next big trend in events/social catering?
Events that, while still celebrating the same milestones (weddings, birthdays, etc), become more informal, more organic, and more personalized. People just want to be together. The pomp and circumstance is becoming old hat.
For women entering the profession, what are some key skills or traits that will help them succeed?
Patience, organization, kindness, and humility—and to start working on increasing their emotional stamina.
You have, personally, received some rave reviews on websites such as The Knot. What are your top 5 service tips for dealing with clientele planning one of the most important days of their life?
Constantly convey—through words and actions—how important their event's success is to you. When a client knows you are committed to their success, they will trust you and, in turn, allow you to best serve them.
Be transparent and honest, especially when it comes to what is available and possible. Educate the customer and set realistic expectations aligning with the resources of your operations.
Find a balance between being polished, professional, and personable. Do not be sterile and unrelatable.
Remember that you are human and bound to make mistakes. Write everything down and reduce the possibility of this happening.
Be grateful. Events are an abstract purchase, which means that clients can't take the product with them when they give you a deposit and sign an agreement. Until their event is done, all they have is a contract and your word that you can help execute their dream. Before choosing to place their trust in your team, they probably considered other venues, but still chose yours. Never take that for granted.
Do you have 3 top tools, gizmos, gadgets, activities that you could not live—or do your job—without?
I cannot live without my crossbody phone case, my galaxy note phone, and without time to enjoy the arts to help decompress.
What are 3 food or beverage MUST-HAVES that will always be winners regardless of the event, occasion, or crowd?
Top shelf libations
Small bites and petite plates in enough quantity to substitute a meal
Weddings always bring out the best (or worst) of people—there’s no such thing as a boring wedding—do you have a funny anecdote you might be able to share?
I generally abstain from disclosing the unique experiences I live through with our customers, but… I once experienced an officiant knocking a person—who was being married—on the head with a microphone, mid-ceremony, to get their attention, which sent a loud “pop" that resonated through the room. The situation was embarrassing for all involved, but in retrospect, it is now viewed as absurd and funny.